“Where is my wife, and what have you done with her?”
That was my immediate reply to the email I’d just gotten from Mexico. I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. I could see this would end badly. Someone had obviously abducted my wife and was now impersonating her. The response came quickly.
“She’s very pretty, and I know you’ll like her.”
“A cat!” I wrote back. “It’s not whether I’ll like her or not. You’re a dog person. You know absolutely nothing about cats!”
I just knew this was a train wreck waiting to happen, and it looked like I would not be able to prevent the inevitable.
Sharon replied, “I’m retired and you’re still working. I want a pet. And I don’t want to deal with a dog.” I could see it was a done deal. “She’s very pretty,” she persisted.
After a respectably long career as an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board, my wife Sharon had been retired just a short time when she brought Graciela into our lives.
The truth was she wanted a small furry animal that would sit on her lap while she read books; an animal that did not need to be walked in the morning, since Sharon loved to sleep late. For years she’d had to get up early to go to work, first at the NLRB Headquarters in Washington, DC, and then at the regional office in downtown Oakland. She planned to spend the rest of her days sleeping late. (I can attest to the fact that she has done just that. I have often suspected that the movie “Sleeper” was based on her life.)
How this all unfolded was rather complicated. Years before, my cousin Gil and his wife Priscilla had moved to a small gated community in Baja California, Mexico, not far from the US border and just an hour drive to the San Diego Airport. Ex-pats such as they have a special pass that allows them to easily cross the border. Their modest home overlooks the Pacific Ocean, and they enjoy both the flavor and culture of living in Mexico while being close enough to take advantage of medical and other amenities in the U.S. The resort town of Rosarito is nearby.
Although Sharon and I had visited my cousins several times, this trip was a getaway for Sharon to spend some time with Pris and relax.
Unlike my cousin Gil, who was born and raised Jewish, Priscilla is a Christian and possesses all the best traits of that faith. Her generosity, charity, and hospitality know no bounds. So when she was made aware by a couple of local boys that three kittens were stranded in a small pit underneath a propane tank, she was there to supervise their rescue and then nurture them. When Sharon arrived for her retreat, Priscilla was still in the process of bottle-feeding the litter, now housed within her walled yard. I have no doubt that Pris, had she not been past childbearing years, would have personally nursed the kittens. (What happened to the birth mother remains a mystery to this day, although a nearby busy road provides a clue to her probable demise.)
Sharon had brought her knitting to Mexico, and the movement of the needles attracted one particular kitten, who jumped into her lap and quickly turned on the purring switch. Sharon didn’t stand a chance.
“Did I mention she’s very pretty?”
“I know. You said that. But you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into. She’s a cat.” Primarily, I was thinking about what I was getting myself into. But who was I to deny Sharon her request? I had lived through the 1970s and knew better. “How are you going to get her here?”
“Pris and I have it all worked out.” (Priscilla to the rescue again. No surprise.) The plan was to take the kitten to the Mexican veterinarian who would supply traveling papers to get across the border. Then Pris would bring the cat to a vet in San Diego for whatever necessary shots and further documentation she’d need to fly on a commercial airline.
Somewhere along the way a pet container was purchased, the cat was transported across the border, and flown (at no small expense) on United Airlines to Oakland, where Sharon picked her up.
I came home from work that night, and for the next sixteen years my life was not the same.
“Her name is Graciela, but we’ll call her Gracie.” The cat was, it seems, okay with this.
She certainly was very pretty, with big ears and a long tail, tabby gray on top and pure white underneath. She had Sharon’s green eyes. (The thought of submitting her saliva sample to 23andMe crossed my mind.)
We were living at the time in a four bedroom, three-and-a-half bath home in the Oakland Hills, so it was totally appropriate for Graciela to have her own bathroom. She dutifully went down to the lower level where her litter box lived, and never had an accident during the years she lived there. For that I was grateful.
She was an inside cat, but at one point, I bought her a bright red cat harness and strapped it around her before taking her out on our patio. There, with her leash tethered to my chaise, she enjoyed sunning herself and listening to the sounds of birds and cars.
She quickly became aware of Cooper, the boy-cat next door. Although Graciela had been spayed, some atavistic force compelled her to run from room to room and window to window whenever she became aware that Cooper was at large. I began to think that Cooper may have been gay—he paid absolutely no attention to her. And I was just as happy about that. I was her father and Cooper, whatever his pedigree, was not good enough for her.
In spite of the costs Sharon had incurred in transportation and veterinary expenses, I knew in my heart that Gracie was, basically, a 15 centavo cat. This did not stop her from causing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dollars worth of damage in our house, much as I had anticipated. When I pointed out the rips and tears on our living room furniture and the stains on the rug, Sharon found excuses to defend her girl’s behavior. Unfortunately, I was not allergic to cats so I couldn’t play that card. Regardless, she and I had become close—she had me wrapped around her long tail.
Like the young child who promises her parents she’ll take care of a must-have pet, clean up after it, feed it, and other lies, Sharon shirked many of these tasks, which somehow shifted to me.
Graciela and I were both early risers. I cut her nails. I played with her. I threw the little mouse for her to fetch (at one point she did this 30 times in a row without tiring; I finally got bored and quit). And although she never once bit or scratched her mama, I was often the recipient of these marks of attention.
I well remember “the talk” I finally had to have with her. I was on my hands and knees and had her pinned on her back with her paws sticking up and her green eyes staring into mine.
“Look at me, cat!” I told her. “I am the alpha male in this house, and don’t you ever forget it!”
Strangely, she seemed to get the message, and treated me with more respect for the rest of her life.
Graciela was, of course, Catholic. She was born in Mexico and was probably descended from a long line of feline priests and nuns. As the author of What I Wish My Christian Friends Knew About Judaism, I know about such things. One time I’d even suggested to my friend Alice Camille, a noted Catholic author, that we co-write a book.
“What are you thinking?” Alice asked.
“The title would be, Raising Your Catholic Cat in a Jewish Home.” She loved the title, but, sadly, the book never got written.
I also felt that although the name Graciela was charming, being a Mexican Catholic cat it was not sufficient.
“Sharon, I came up with Gracie’s full name. You should call the vet and let them know.” Sharon had no idea what the hell I was talking about, but she indulged me.
“Tell me,” she said. I told her.
“Graciela Maria Teresa Inmaculata Concepción Luz.”
“I don’t think so,” she replied, and went back to her book.
I also felt that Gracie’s official birthday should be on September 16, which marks Mexico’s Independence Day. This would not have been a problem given the lack of an official birth certificate. We could have changed it (hey, George M. Cohan changed his birthday to the Fourth of July), but what was the point? She showed no interest in going into show business, even though I often told her she could have been one of those cats on TV.
To give credit where it is due, she did an excellent job of keeping the rats out of our house. The Oakland Hills had an influx of rats, probably as a result of climate change, and like many other houses in our area, rats had found their way into crawl spaces and garages. Occasionally we could hear them scratching on the walls. Graciela, who had very acute hearing, would perk up her pointy ears and run down the stairs to the door that led to our furnace and meow loudly.
“Good girl!” I would exclaim. “Here, have one of these delicious tuna treats.” The label said they were delicious. Who was I to doubt their word?
Sharon certainly loved her cat, but she did not indulge her. Other than the liquid from cans of tuna we’d open for our own lunch, dry cat food and water was what the cat ate her whole life. She never complained, probably as a result of her humble birth. She turned up her nose at the fancy cat gourmet meals. This is what happens when you’re born under a propane tank.
Upon seeing her for the first time many people remarked at how pretty she was, and mistakenly assumed she was “sweet.” But she disliked children and would hiss or growl at their approach. More than one grandchild probably still bears the scars of trying to be too friendly.
When Gracie was about seven we all moved to our co-op apartment on Lake Merritt. This meant changes for all of us, including her. No more rats. No private bathroom. No Cooper. But she still had most of the same furniture and rugs, which she continued to shred and stain. In addition to shredding, she was also an expert at shedding. (Years after her passing I still occasionally find evidence of her presence.)
If there were a cat Olympics, she probably would have competed in the high jump. I would sit at the dinner table holding the laser light, and move it up the walls where she would exhibit phenomenal feats of vertical elevation. While Sharon thought that having a cat run around after a little red dot was cruel, I believe it was just a form of exercise that she didn’t get otherwise.
Our contractor had installed a special cat door to our balcony where we placed the litter box. This system worked well for years—until it didn’t. Gracie was getting old, and like many senior citizens, found pooping inside the box a challenge. After a number of episodes, we moved the litter box inside, near the cat door which she no longer used.
During her later years, she walked with obviously painful hips from one napping site to her food and water bowls, then to her litter box, and then back to another napping site. Or she’d painfully jump onto my recliner and sit next to me. Or she’d snuggle next to Sharon while she read (Sharon read, not Gracie).
Sharon had wisely declined the offer of hip surgery a local veterinarian had suggested. I don’t think we would have survived the months of recuperation. After discussing the many ramifications and pros and cons of surgery when we called him for his advice and opinion, our good friend Roy Douglas, a wonderful veterinarian, sagely reminded us, “You know… she’s a cat.”
When Graciela was 16 and starting to fail, Sharon and I left her in the hands of a cat-loving woman who stayed at our apartment while we left for a 112-day world cruise. We weren’t sure she’d be alive when we returned. Because of the pandemic, our cruise only lasted 60 days, and Gracie was still extant upon our return. Barely. She had developed a tumor in her cheek, moved slowly and painfully, and was missing the litter box more often than not. I called the vet a few days later and made “the appointment.”
On her last day, I wrapped her comfortably in a bath towel, put her on the front seat of my car, and we took that last long ride together. Sharon was not feeling well and was happy to have me do this. The vet’s office was in full-Covid lockdown mode, and we couldn’t enter the building. We waited in the parking lot for a phone call letting me know that I could bring her to the front door and hand her off.
During those last minutes together, Graciela and I communed. Her pretty green eyes looked at mine, and we both knew her time was near. I don’t know why, but I believe she was okay with this.
My last words to her were the same words I’d told her many times during her life. I gave her a little kiss, smiled, and softly said, “As cats go, you’re one of them.”